Your partner shouldn’t be your everything – Why you need an ‘other significant other’

“Guess what I did today?”

Before my boyfriend even had a chance to take off his bike helmet or put down his backpack, I launched into an unstoppable monologue detailing the complicated maneuvers I’d just completed to temporarily receive Platinum Honors status so I could cash out my credit card points, earning a whopping $50 in the process.

“Next time,” he said after I finally paused to breathe, “I’ll pay you $50 to never hear a discount story again.”

I’m obsessed with deal hunting. I am my mother’s daughter. Our family’s favorite four-letter word is “S-A-L-E.” My mom is a world-class saver who allowed me to start clipping coupons years before it was safe for me to handle scissors. Some of my earliest childhood memories include strolling through Publix, hand-in-hand with my mom, her teal fanny pack overflowing with $0.25-off coupons for Colgate and Gatorade.

Around the time I had this realization I started reading a new book called The All-or-Nothing Marriage by Eli Finkel. He’s a psychology and business school professor at Northwestern who specializes in relationship science. Eli’s book provides a history of marriage, thoughts on how the institution has shifted as our expectations have changed, and tips on how to invest in your relationship even when your time and energy are spread thin.

Now I’m partnering with Eli to bring some of his insights to life. One of my favorite of his evidence-based, relationships tips, or #lovehacks, is the idea of the OSO – the other significant other. This isn’t cheating (read Esther Perel’s new book, The State of Affairs, for information on that). The OSO is a platonic family member or friend who plays a role in our life that our romantic partner, for whatever reason, simply can’t.

In his research on modern American marriages, Eli discovered that nowadays we expect our committed romantic partners to wear many hats. Almost all the hats. Hats that were dispersed among our social network before we were married.

By spreading the metaphorical hats among family and friends, you build a “diversified social portfolio.” Eli defines this as “hav[ing] various significant others in our lives who relate to us in different ways help us meet distinct needs.”

This idea is supported by research from social psychologists Elaine Cheung and Jason Anderson, who found that having a varied group of friends and family increases people’s overall psychological well-being.

Take Seema, for example. At 25, she had a lot of friends who served different roles. Michelle was her exercise buddy, she went to meditation classes with Shayla, she talked career growth with Vero, and she did woodworking projects with Yoni.

Now, Seema’s 40 and married to Dan. She doesn’t see as much of her friends and instead looks to him to meet her major needs. He’s well-suited to support her with career conversations, and he’s a great workout buddy, but he rolls his eyes at the idea of meditation and has no interest in woodworking. He’s just not the right person to help her meet these other needs, which leaves Seema feeling less fulfilled than when she tapped into her larger network.

What Seema needs are some OSOs so she can have her needs met and take some pressure off her marriage.

How can you incorporate this idea of OSOs into your life?

Start by asking yourself what roles you’ve asked your partner to play that they are uninterested in fulfilling. For example, insisting your partner go to a party with you when he much prefers small group hangs. Or wishing your partner suggest visits to museums and art galleries when it’s just not her thing. Remember, just because they don’t share all your interests doesn’t make them a bad partner!

Now, think of how many times you’ve had conflict with your partner because you’ve asked them to be someone they’re not. How much time have they wasted trying to get you to change your interests?

Wouldn’t it be easier to just find someone else to play this role? That’s where the OSO comes in. Here’s how you can start incorporating OSOs into your life:

  1. Figure out the different needs you want to fill in your life. (Ex: For Seema, it would be exercise, spirituality, career development, and woodworking.)
  2. Determine which of these roles your partner wants to and can play.
  3. For those your partner isn’t suited for, find a friend or family member who can fill those roles.

In the long run, this will make you happier because your needs are being met. And it will make your partner happier because they can focus on roles that match their skills and interests.

The next time I had a life-changing coupon story, I knew exactly what to do.

“Siri, call Mom Cell.”

by Logan Ury